When the Toronto Wolfpack announced their withdrawal from their first Super League season last week an already fluid situation turned into a raging river, rapidly reshaping their predicament on the daily.
“It just didn’t make sense to continue,” says Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter when talking about the July 20 decision to end their campaign. His tone is neither here nor there – just matter-of-fact.
Hunter and owner David Argyle had been talking about the possibility for weeks but turned hopeful when a loan was arranged to help them catch up on player payments and other operational costs. It all went awry in the days leading up to their exit announcement from competition as the expected money was lost to delays, becoming the final thread pulled in a great unraveling.
“It was that the player payroll – which is critical to every month – was to be financed through a new cash infusion,” explains Hunter. “We’ll figure out another solution now but that was basically for a couple of months. So when that didn’t happen all of a sudden we’re looking at that, which we have to raise and obviously honour with the players, and just the overall cost of continuing with very little revenue coming in. Obviously its more expensive to play over there – we have a lot of ancillary costs – it was just sort of rolling up into a number that just didn’t make any sense.”
The organization spent a great deal on players in the early years to gain promotion to Super League and even more when they got there (0-6 in the pandemic-interrupted campaign). Ongoing roster difficulties, visa issues and the brutal cancellation of its home schedule due to travel restrictions brought everything to an ugly head.
Since Hunter arrived last November OG basketball mind Brian Noble departed the club after roster management came under fire. Recently UK director of operations Martin Vickers was relocated within the organization and staff in Toronto had already been laid off. The crew left to face the crisis had been depleted.
Currently a month behind on payroll the club is now focussed on finding the cash to fix it, which included a plan for a last-gasp loan request to the other 11-team owners for 200,000 pounds that reports initially said was denied unanimously.
“They were still discussing it,” corrects Hunter. “It was reported that they had turned us down. They had told us, in fact, that it was highly unlikely but that they would continue to investigate it. We figured out another option.
“We were going to actually go to each of the other 11 teams and say; “OK, guys. As a loan could each team put up 20, 000 pounds and here is the payment structure” and it would basically be back to them before the start of the 2021 season. That never really got out there to the owners because we just didn’t have time. I think a loan would have happened one way or the other.
“It certainly came down to dollars.”
This unfortunate bend may become another stain on a league amassing quite the collection but it doesn’t have to be. This isn’t too messy that it can’t be cleaned up if the sort of cooperation that should exist between a league and its newest franchise can be found. That disconnect, a frayed relationship and the possibilities that may still exist are what officials will also be considering as they decide the fate of the franchise.
Rugby icon Sonny Bill Williams – who was signed to a healthy 2-year, $10M deal last fall to be the face of the franchise – instantly brought credibility to the Pack and more eyeballs to the league. If the team were relegated to the Championship or League 1 divisions it’d be difficult to see him sticking around. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a side that was relying heavily on his star power to boost their fortunes both on and off the field. As it looks today Williams may never play a rugby game in Canada. He has already signed on with the Sydney Roosters back in Australia who offered Williams and other idling Wolfpack players under contract the exception of carrying two contracts so as not to jeopardize their standing with the Toronto club.
It’s a huge gesture that works three ways: The NRL gets star power, the players get to find work and get money – with an option to return to Toronto – and the Wolfpack have some chance of retaining familiar players should they be in a position to rebound from the disaster that has become their 2020 season.
“Sonny may say “you know what, I’ve got an offer from another from another club, I want to go there, lets work out an exit strategy and we would be open to any concept,” says Hunter. “We certainly hope and understand our obligations under his contract that he will be back next year.
“I think he’s like “I signed up to play for a team in Toronto and I wouldn’t mind actually playing a game there.”
The Good Fight
If the club is relegated to League 1 or worse it will most likely fold. At that point the cost of business would be too high, particularly after this bloody battle to get to Super League. That scenario may be the farthest away but in any case, would the Wolfpack even want to fight that fight again knowing the difficulties and off field challenges that wait?
There is a laugh. And then a pause. And then “Yes”. Hunter is wary but hopeful. He’s a believer among the fence sitters still hawking the wares of the Wolfpack while wondering what to do about them. The brand, the players, the city and the possibilities are all part of the value Hunter and Argyle articulated in a pitch delivered to league officials last Thursday as the club pleads its case to remain in UK’s top rugby division.
With a new TV deal looming and Super League desperate to grow, shunning the opportunities that Toronto’s market size and international bridge it brings to the sport – alongside the possibility of a Williams return – would be short sighted. It’s where Toronto’s heart best beats for the league – as that teleport between here and there. A link between two sporting cultures and markets. That’s where Hunter sees the biggest value and believes Super League should consider that first.
But much will have to change.
Under the current deal with the league the Wolfpack get no share of the Sky TV money deal – a broadcaster that accounts for 90% of Super League’s coverage -, which essentially covers player payroll for most teams. They continue to pay the travel expenses for visiting clubs that travel from the UK to Toronto to play at Lamport stadium, or “the Den” as it has become known since the Wolfpack’s arrival in 2017. As a team founded in Canada they are not a full member of the RFL and therefore have a non-voting membership arrangement with the league.
It was a crippling deal from day one and despite bringing more profile, star power and big market interest to the league the Wolfpack have faced unprecedented opposition from both fans and executives alike in their bid to be accepted fully into the fold. The deal has remained unaltered though renegotiations on some of the issues were expected later this year.
“Look it, at some point – whether it’s now or in a year or in two years – we deserve to be a full member of Super League and/or the RFL in good standing,” says Hunter. “They say you can’t be a member of RFL because you’re not a UK club. What kind of insular or short sighted approach is that?
“I mean, based on the investment that we’ve made… you’re just saying your constitution says that all the clubs have to be from the UK. Why would we and Catalans not have the same rights as any member? We pay all the same dues, same deals and 17 of our 24 players are from the UK. So we abide by all your rules then you tell us we can’t be a member?”
For Super League it wasn’t the reality of Toronto’s situation that shocked them. The difficulties have been easy to see this season and when thrown on top of cancelled home games and more lost revenue nobody is questioning the sincerity of Toronto’s circumstances. The problem was with the announcement coming just three days after the Wolfpack told the league they were on a green light to restart. Super League went forward with announcing the return schedule of fixtures and began using the Wolfpack in their marketing. The optics sucked.
“We had discussions about a week ago (12 days) and we said: “Guys, were in dire straights here,” says Hunter. “We need the following things resolved like, right away and that was – is there a loan possibility? We needed to know what was happening with promotion and relegation. Again, it’s not a Super League decision and this is a list to Super League.
“We needed to understand that the other clubs would commit to supporting us with other players. We could have needed 12 guys because at the time immigration was still outstanding so add that to the immigration issue. So four or five critical pieces to us were still up in the air.”
Hunter says they were as open as they could be about their situation heading into the week before the fateful announcement.
We said: “Guys, if this doesn’t get resolved we’re not sure we can field a team”. That obviously stirred some pretty hard and aggressive discussions throughout the week but by Thursday because of what had been resolved – the loan had not but the others (issues) they were working hard to resolve – we had said “Ok, we’re in” because the additional funding was supposed to come on the Friday then it was going to come Saturday, etc., etc. So yes, they have every right to say they were surprised because three days earlier we suggested that we would be there.”
It was a risky move that ended up putting the league in a difficult position but that should still pale in comparison to the great beyond that the Toronto market represents to a league that entered the uncharted waters of transatlantic expansion three years ago.
$30M spent. Unprecedented views for Super League. More interest in expansion than ever before.
Hunter is banking on that big picture to keep the Wolfpack elite. For now he’s just waiting on the verdict like everybody else.
“I think we’ll have to evaluate it when a decision has been made,” says Hunter on the possibility of walking away. “In an ideal world, – and the timing may have been wrong but it was the right decision for our club – people are understanding that the decision was not made lightly. Ideally we stay in Super League. That’s the first hope. If we get demoted, relegated to Championship I think we make the decision at that time.”
Since that statement Argyle has suggested public ownership in the team at a $100 a share to come up with $10M to help operate the team. Following that proposal ownership groups from North America and Australia that currently own and operate sports franchises swooped with interest in purchasing the team. It’s left the next chapter of this saga entirely unpredictable.
Bad timing threw off Super League and put a bug into restart plans meant to correct and recoup some part of this broken season. Now the only timing that matters is the moment it chooses to hand down its ruling on the future of the Wolfpack. The path to survival lies in getting a share of streams like central funding and TV deals, which were not included in the original expansion pact in 2017.
“So that is up for debate and when you ask about would we consider not participating I think that will be on the list,” says Hunter, his voice still calm and confident. “We expect, given what we’ve shown in the way of commitment, that we would become full members of the RFL.”